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While working as an intern at the White House, Monica Lewinsky had a short-term sexual relationship with President Bill Clinton. The news of this extra-marital affair, and the resulting investigation and impeachment, became known as the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Monicagate, or the more tongue-in-cheek Zippergate.
In 1995, Monica Lewinsky, a graduate of Lewis and Clark College, was hired to work as an intern at the White House during Clinton's first term. She had long admired President Clinton, and fantasized about him romantically. After much flirting, the two became engaged sexually, and secretly performed sexual acts on each other in closed quarters of the White House, including approximately nine incidents of oral sex, more than a dozen incidents of phone sex, and Clinton penetrating Lewinsky vaginally with a cigar.
As Lewinsky's relationship with the President became more distant, Lewinsky confided details of her feelings and the President's behavior to her presumed friend Linda Tripp. Unbeknownst to Lewinsky, Tripp was recording their telephone conversations, and eventually delivered the tapes to Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel appointed by Congress to investigate the president on various other matters.
News of the scandal first broke on January 17, 1998 on the Drudge Report website, which reported that Newsweek editors were sitting on a story by investigative reporter Michael Isikoff exposing the affair. The story broke in the mainstream press on January 21 when it hit the Washington Post. The story swirled for several days and despite swift denials from Clinton, the clamor for answers from the White House grew louder. On January 26, a visibly flustered President Clinton addressed the public in a White House press conference and issued a forceful denial:
- "Now, I have to go back to work on my State of the Union speech. And I worked on it until pretty late last night. But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time — never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people."
Pundits debated whether or not Clinton would address the allegations in his State of the Union Address. Ultimately, he chose not to, which may have helped his image with the American people as he appeared more "presidential" and above the fray. First Lady Hillary Clinton publicly stood by her husband throughout the scandal. On January 27, in an appearance on NBC's The Today Show she famously said, "The great story here for anybody willing to find it, write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."
Lewinsky received transactional immunity on July 28, 1998 in exchange for her grand jury testimony concerning her relationship with Clinton. Under oath she admitted that her relationship with Clinton involved oral sex, including oral-anal contact, as documented in the Starr report, which eventually led to President Clinton's impeachment, on the basis of perjury and obstruction of justice regarding the affair.
Clinton then admitted in taped testimony on August 17, 1998 that he had an "improper physical relationship" with Lewinsky. On the same day he admitted before the nation that he "misled people" about his relationship.
Allegations of perjury
In his deposition for the Jones lawsuit, Clinton denied having "sexual relations" with Lewinsky. Based on the evidence provided by Tripp, Starr concluded that this sworn testimony was false and perjurious.
The issue was greatly confused by an unusual definition for sexual contact that was ordered during the initial questioning which led to the perjury allegations.  During the deposition, Clinton was asked "have you ever had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as that term is defined in Deposition Exhibit 1, as modified by the Court." The judge ordered that Clinton be given an opportunity to review the agreed definition. Afterwards, Clinton answered "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky." Clinton later stated that he interpreted the agreed upon definition of sexual relations to exclude his receiving oral sex.
Legal opinion is divided as to whether President Clinton's statement met the legal definition of perjury. However, legal opinion has been almost unanimous that a criminal prosecution for perjury in such a case would be highly unusual, and would almost certainly fail.
Under the United States Constitution, the House of Representatives issues Articles of Impeachment, which the Senate must then consider as a panel of judges. Impeachment is a means of quickly removing dangerously criminal officials from high office. The Constitution provides for impeachment in cases of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." A "high" crime in eighteenth century parlance is a crime against the sovereign, which in United States law is taken to mean against the United States as a whole. Examples of "high" crimes include attempting to undermine United States power for political gain, staging a military coup, accepting bribes, plundering the treasury, fixing elections, and making policy decisions to the detriment of the United States for the benefit of cronies.
Republicans argued that by committing perjury while in the office of President, Bill Clinton taught the youth of the nation disrespect for the nation's laws, which would in time lead to the complete downfall of the United States legal system and government: thus, simple perjury was an impeachable high crime.
As part of the impeachment inquiry, House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde sent a list of 81 questions to Clinton on November 5, 1998. Formal impeachment hearings began on November 19. After receiving Clinton's answers, the Judiciary Committee commended four articles of impeachment to the full House. In summary, they were the following:
- Article I: Perjury before grand jury on August 17, 1998
- Article II: Perjury in Paula Jones case on December 23, 1997 and January 17, 1998
- Article III: Obstruction of justice related to Paula Jones case
- Article IV: Abuse of high office
On December 19, the House of Representatives forwarded articles I and III of impeachment (perjury and obstruction of justice) to the Senate. Article I was passed by a vote of 228-206. Article III was approved by a vote of 221-212. Article II failed by a vote of 205-229. Article IV was rejected by a vote of 148-285. The two articles that were passed made Clinton the first elected president in U.S. history to be impeached. The only previous impeachment was the unelected President Andrew Johnson (who had succeeded the assassinated Abraham Lincoln) in 1868. President Richard Nixon had resigned under the threat of impeachment in 1974.
The charges had been rushed through the House in order to take advantage of the votes of so-called "lame-duck" Republican congressmen, and did not reflect the recommendations of the Starr Report. Success in the Senate was not anticipated, due to presumed partisans voting if for no other reasons, and the charges were reorganized apparently to maximize the opportunities for sensationalism and the humiliation of the President: for example the new charges allowed the Prosecution in the Senate impeachment proceedings to read into the record lurid details from the Lewinsky testimony that would have been irrelevant to the charges recommended in the Starr report.
The Senate trial began on January 7, 1999. The prosecution relied on two basic forms of argument: "The President must have been thinking about topic X at the time that he testifies that he was thinking about topic Y", thus committing perjury—an allegation that cannot be proven; and simply lying about the order and facts of events. While the latter charge is serious, there are numerous documented examples of false evidence being introduced to substantiate it, including:
- The prosectors presented that on the morning of December 11th Judge Wright issued a court order; actually the court order was issued at 7:50 p.m.
- Based on this false timing they claimed that a noon meeting was after the court order was issued.
- Vernon Jordan began making certain telephone calls after a noon meeting; actually his telephone record for those calls starts at 9:30 p.m.
- A 3:32 p.m. telephone call preceded Betty Currie concealing evidence; they otherwise presented that the evidence was concealed at 2:00 p.m.
In each case (and many others) the false evidence or ordering had been present in the initial written offerings of the prosecutors and the corrections had been listed in the defense's response. All these charges and arguments had been added by the House Judiciary Committee and were not present in the Starr Report. Nevertheless the prosecutors went ahead with the prima facie false accusations, presumably for reasons unrelated to the legal prosecution of the impeachment.
On Friday, February 12, 1999, the Senate rejected both of the articles of impeachment. The perjury charges were rejected with 55 not-guilty votes and 45 guilty votes, and on the obstruction of justice charges the vote was 50-50. A two-thirds majority (67 guilty votes) was required for a conviction on either charge. The vote fell largely along party lines. For the perjury vote, 10 Republicans joined all 45 Democrats in voting not-guilty. On the obstruction of justice charge, 5 Republicans joined all 45 Democrats in voting not-guilty.
Contrary to a popular public misconception, Clinton was successfully impeached (that is, the House did successfully send him to be tried by the Senate). He was not, however, successfully convicted of any of the charges, nor was he given any penalty (beyond the censure of the House of Representatives).
Many of the House Republicans prominent in the prosecution of the impeachment lost their seats in the following election; it is argued by some that this was an expression of voter distaste for the "embarrassing circus" of the impeachment.
The perjury allegations provoked the Arkansas Supreme Court to suspend Clinton's law license in April 2000. Clinton agreed to the 5-year suspension and to pay a $25,000 fine on January 19, 2001. The following October, the U.S. Supreme Court once again suspended Clinton's law license and gave him 40 days to convince them that he should not be disbarred permanently. Clinton surrendered his law license in response to these actions. Clinton has since made a living as an author and speaker, and arguably is no more than symbolically affected by the loss of his license.
In early January of 1998 the news broke in various media outlets (see Drudge Report) that the President had had an affair. On January 26, 1998 on American television, Clinton denied he had "sexual relations" with Lewinsky, but did not admit to the actual nature of their relationship.
The components of the scandal, including:
- extramarital sex;
- sex with an underling many years his junior (and very near his own daughter's age);
- sex with an intern for whom he was arguably acting in loco parentis;
- sexual acts considered outside of the mainstream in the United States, including anilingus;
- perjury allegations;
- Linda Tripp's 'betrayal' of Lewinsky's friendship;
- the President's misleading public disavowal;
- the President assuring his own cabinet the allegations were untrue;
- the allegations of impeachable offenses;
coupled with increasingly hostile media coverage, opportunistic persecution of a perceived vulnerable Democrat by the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and general partisan feeling led to spirited and emotional public debate. Some saw the President as dishonest, but the exposure of the scandal and subsequent humiliation of his family as a greater crime; some argued that the perjury allegations were insignificant but the public disavowal a disgrace; some hated Lewinsky for seducing the President, some hated the President for being seduced, and some hated Linda Tripp the most for betraying friendship.
The affair, and its sordid details, led to a period of cultural celebrity for Lewinsky; as an unlikely sex symbol, and as a younger-generation nexus of a political storm that was both lighthearted, and extremely serious at the same time. Some mild use of the name "Lewinsky" still exists as a term for oral sex, though Lewinsky references and jokes have long cooled in the public interest.
Some allege that Operation Desert Fox—which was launched in December of 1998 and actually delayed some of the House of Representative votes relating to the impeachment process—as well as Operation Allied Force—which commenced operations on March 17, 1999 but which had been on the table since the Racak incident on January 14, 1999—were embarked upon primarily to shore up the authority and stature of the President in the face of the domestic challenges (populations tend to increase their support for leaders in times of war) or even to distract media and public attention from the scandal. See: Wag the Dog
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